Before it earned a string of honors at the recent Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards in Taiwan, Leon Dai’s second film “No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (Can’t Live Without You)” screened at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York and was co-presented with Asian CineVision. In attendance was the film’s lead actor and screenwriter Wen-Pin Chen, who participated in a discussion afterward.
“No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti” is a very different film than Dai’s first, “Twenty Something Taipei.” As opposed to the colorful, frenetically edited, pop music-drenched previous film, this new one is its polar opposite. “Twenty Something Taipei” presented Dai as a compelling, if rather conventional, chronicler of the confused young denizens of its titular city; in “No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti” (its Spanish title notwithstanding), Dai reveals himself as a true, and worthy, heir of Italian neorealism.
Filmed in stark black-and-white, with much more sustained takes, a more somber mood, and minimal music, “No Puedo” suggests a classic tale by Vittorio de Sica or Roberto Rossellini transplanted to Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city. Based on an actual 2003 incident concerning a man who threatened to throw himself and his daughter off a bridge, the film focuses on Wu-Hsiung (Wen-Pin Chen), a single father who squats in an abandoned warehouse near the docks. Wu-Hsiung spends his days working whatever odd jobs he can to scrape together enough money to take care of himself and his young daughter, Mei (Yo-Hsuan Chao). Despite their impoverished circumstances, the two of them live a relatively happy and contented existence. Their lives are cruelly intruded on one day when social welfare workers knock on their door, demanding that Wu-Hsiung go down immediately to get his daughter legally registered so that she can attend school. However, he is prevented from doing so, since as he was not legally married to Mei’s mother – who abandoned them before she was born – he is not recognized as her legal guardian. Thus begins the painful process of Wu-Hsiung being ground down by the merciless bureaucracy that thwarts him at every turn. Even the fact that one of his old school chums is now a powerful legislator is no help; he continues to get bounced back and forth from agency to agency. “We’re only following regulations,” is the only answer Wu-Hsiung is given as he makes his futile attempts to appeal to some actual human sense of kindness and fairness. His frustrations lead him to the desperate act with which the film begins, and which echoes the film’s real-life inspiration.
This beautifully shot film, Taiwan’s foreign language Oscar submission this year, was sensitively written by its lead actor Wen-Pin Chen, who gives a superb performance, conveying the increasing desperation that his character is driven to. The black and white images have a cool luminosity, which works to dampen the melodrama that such a story can easily tip over into. The emotion of the tale comes through strongly nevertheless, and in fact is enhanced by its stylized aesthetic. The choice to shoot in monochrome, according to Chen, was made out of respect for the real-life inspiration and to avoid exploitation or sensationalism. (The film also includes a witty reference to its own visual aesthetic in a scene in which Mei watches “The Wizard of Oz” on television, highlighting the fact that both the characters in this film and Dorothy and her Kansas family live in a similarly monochrome worlds.) Dai’s film is imbued with both a sense of outrage at the heartlessness of a society that refuses to bend its unyielding rules (befitting its screenwriter and lead actor’s background in social activism) and an elegant formalism that subtly tugs against its class-based anger.